I was fortunate enough to be able to speak with Chris Pokorny, the Executive Editor at our Cleveland Browns sister site, Dawgs By Nature. Chris generously answered my questions about the Browns. Here are his answers.
Jeremy: Obviously, it's been tough sledding for the Browns for several years now. At one point in 2014 it felt to me like the Browns were turning the corner, but I think they've gone something like 3-25 since the last 5 games of 2014. That said, they've undergone a pretty radical shift with the hiring of a baseball guy Paul DePodesta (from my beloved Mets) and bringing in Hue Jackson (who I personally think is great), and rolling with so many rookies. What is it, 14 rookies that were on the opening roster? Granted, you guys are currently winless, but what are your thoughts about the general direction the Browns are going?
Chris: 0-7 may sound like rough sledding, but a season like this couldn't have come at a better time for the new front office. The first thing the organization has going for them is that much of the fan base basically bought in to their approach from day one. More innovative analytics? Realizing the roster is stuck in mud, so they wanted to essentially re-build it from scratch? Sure, why not -- nothing else has worked since 1999. Even the most optimistic fan knew that such a radical approach requires a couple of years of patience. That takes the burden off of guys like Hue Jackson or Paul DePodesta, who don't have to fear for their jobs, even if the team's win-loss record would typically draw a quick trigger firing from other NFL teams.
The other thing the organization has going for them is how historic of a sports year this has been for the city of Cleveland. The Cavaliers broke the city's championship drought, and now the Indians are in the World Series. Fans have been able to shift their attention to those teams and kind of say, "Go ahead, Browns -- get your stuff together and we'll check back in a year or two." Some may feel that could do some long-term damage to the Browns typically being the most popular team in town, but the second the club even strings together a win or two, the spotlight will be right back on them.
Jeremy: Who are the Browns planning on starting at quarterback on Sunday? Is it going to be Kessler? Hogan? Someone else? What are your general thoughts on the young quarterbacks in general?
Chris: At the time I wrote this, Cody Kessler had not been cleared to play from his concussion suffered last week, and I don't expect him to be cleared either. Veteran Josh McCown, who is probably the best overall quarterback on the roster (and would be the best quarterback on the Jets too if he were there), was cleared to play this week as he comes back from a shoulder injury he suffered in Week 2. He's been a full participant in practice, so he is expected to start against the Jets.
Regarding the Browns' young quarterbacks, Kevin Hogan offered some intrigue as a read-option quarterback, but whenever he had to pass the ball, the results were very ugly. The scouting report on him after he was claimed from the Chiefs earlier this year was that he had a really long delivery. When I saw him attempt his first pass this past Sunday, I said to myself, "Holy cow, they weren't kidding." There is zero chance he can be a starter, or even a credible backup in my opinion, if he doesn't get his throwing motion changed.
Kessler didn't have high expectations, but he's actually been very solid. His accuracy is good, he's made smart reads and decisions under pressure, and he hasn't turned the ball over much. His limiting factor, and this is a big one, is that he's not much of a downfield thrower. That could evolve over time, though, and he's shown enough to where many fans would like to see him continue to start once he comes back. No one is ready to anoint him as a long-term starter yet, but he looks like he could be a long-term backup in a worst-case scenario.
Jeremy: Who are the x-factors on your team that you think could have a major effect on the outcome of this game? Can you give me one player on offense and one player on defense who is unheralded, who fans around the league may not be real familiar with, but looks like they are or will soon become a special player?
Chris: My go-to answer is usually WR Terrelle Pryor, but he's still dealing with a hamstring injury that might limit his impact on the game like it did last week. On offense, it's tough to pick a low-key player with superstar potential because we really haven't seen that quality yet from the youngsters, either because of injury or a lack of reps. The closest player I was thinking of was LG Spencer Drango, a rookie who was inserted into the starting lineup last week for the first time and had an OK game. But he's dealing with a knee injury now and might not play this week. I'll have to "pass" on offense.
Defensively, it's tough to pick someone after the group has been flat-out embarrassed by the Patriots, Titans, and Bengals for three straight weeks. To start the season, DE Carl Nassib was a really intriguing pass-rushing prospect. He broke his hand, though, and since returning from that has been largely ineffective. OLB Emmanuel Ogbah has three sacks in the past two games, but only one of them was what I'd refer to as a legitimate sack. Because of his draft status (No. 32 overall, first pick of the second round), he has the best chance to be a special player...but we're still waiting for the light to click.
Jeremy: What has to happen for the Browns to walk out of FirstEnergy Stadium with their first victory? How would you attack the Jets offensively? How would you attack the Jets defensively? What are the strengths of the team? What has to happen for the Browns to get their first victory?
Chris: I think the Browns have to hope that some of the bad mojo that has been surrounding the Jets this season, and still kind of exists at the quarterback position, continues. In other words, the Browns need the Jets to beat themselves. Cleveland's offense is best when the running game is working well, and it was going well last week against Cincinnati. Eventually, though, the Browns' defense gave up way too many yards and Cleveland became too limited with their sixth quarterback having to play. On defense, the Browns have had almost no success all season. If I saw a strategy that worked for them, I'd tell you. The group is just way below average at too many positions to have a defensive gameplan executed to even mediocrity.
Jeremy: If you were the Jets, how would you attack the Browns offensively? Defensively? What are the true weaknesses of the team?
Chris: The Browns have been very bad as a defensive unit. The stats don't show it, but their run defense has been good more times than not. The safeties are terrible against the pass, and the linebackers aren't much better in coverage. Since the pass rush doesn't get to the quarterback consistently, big plays can develop downfield. Cleveland has given up an opening-drive touchdown in almost every game this season.
Cleveland has overachieved on offense, but with so many changes on the offensive line week-to-week, the Jets should try to stunt the hell out of Cleveland. Bring pressure from unexpected directions. Force Cleveland's offensive line to switch and communicate. I'd be shocked if a unit with such a turnover each week could keep the quarterback clean very long.